Wednesday, April 28, 2010

April 28, 2007: the day I returned to the Catholic Church

Three years ago today, I went to confession for the first time in over 30 years and returned to the Catholic Church. As I write in Return to Rome: Confessions of an Evangelical Catholic (Brazos Press, 2009):
It was a spring Texas afternoon, a little hot, not too humid. I had arrived at St. Jerome’s Catholic Church. St. Jerome’s is located in Waco, Texas, the home of my employer, Baylor University— sometimes called “Jerusalem on the Brazos.” Although the church is only about three miles from my home in the adjacent town of Woodway, my arrival on that April 28, 2007 afternoon marked a turning point in a long spiritual pilgrimage that began in 1973 in Las Vegas, Nevada. I had come to church that Saturday to receive the sacrament of reconciliation, which to many is known as confession. This ordinarily would not be such a big deal, except that it was my first confession in more than 30 years. And at the completion of the sacrament I would be in full communion with the Catholic Church. My younger brother, James, emailed me earlier in the week and had jokingly asked if I needed help in recalling my sins. Of course, people become Catholic every day. But in my case, I knew that there would be ramifications: I was the president of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS), an academic society with nearly 4500 members. I was also a fairly well known public intellectual who had gone through a very public tenure battle at Baylor University that had, fortunately, ended in my favor only six months earlier.

Upon entering the confessional, I sat face-to-face with the priest. I said, “Father, forgive me, for I have sinned. It has been over 30 years since my last confession.” Then I said, “I’m not sure I can remember all of my sins.” In his thick East Indian accent, he replied, “That is alright. God knows them all.” I responded, “I was afraid of that.” The priest then heard my confession and granted me absolution. I found my way to the main sanctuary, where I did my penance, which, consisted of one “Our Father” and one “Hail Mary.” When I told this to my wife, Frankie, she thought the priest was far too lenient. She has a thorough recollection of my sins.
Soon after that confession, all heaven broke loose, with rumors and speculations going viral all over cyberspace.  So, I wrote the following (on 5 May 2007) on the now defunct blog, Right Reason

During the last week of March 2007, after much prayer, counsel and consideration, my wife and I decided to seek full communion with the Roman Catholic Church. My wife, a baptized Presbyterian, is going through the process of the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA).  This will culminate with her receiving the sacraments of Holy Communion and Confirmation.  For me, because I had received the sacraments of Baptism, Communion, and Confirmation all before the age of 14, I need only go to confession, request forgiveness for my sins, ask to be received back into the Church, and receive absolution. 
Given my status as president of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS), I decided several weeks ago--after consultation with trusted friends--to not seek absolution until my term as ETS president ended in November and then to request that the ETS nominations committee not place my name on the executive committee ballot as an at-large member.  I wanted to make sure that my return to the Church brought as little attention to ETS as possible.  To complicate matters, I received conflicting advice from wise friends on when and how to address the ETS executive committee on this delicate matter. Some suggested that the ETS executive committee would rather not know about my reception into the Church until after the national meeting in November. These friends recommended I lay low, give a presidential address that is irenic and does not address Protestant-Catholic issues (which I had planned on doing all along), and then quietly ask not to be nominated to the executive committee for the four-year at-large term. Other friends, equally as wise, gave conflicting advice. They opined that my withholding from the executive committee my plans to return to the Church would play to prejudices that some Protestants have about “secretive Jesuit conspiracies” and the like. They were concerned that my planned move would be inadvertently disclosed by friends before the November meeting and that the news that I had withheld information concerning my return to the Church could be perceived by many as a bad witness for the Gospel. 
I did not know exactly what to do. So, I prayed and asked the Lord to provide to me clear direction.  I believe I received this direction on April 20.  On that Friday morning, my 16-year-old nephew, Dean Beckwith, called me and asked if I would be his sponsor when he receives the sacrament of Confirmation on May 13.  I could not say “no” to my dear nephew, who has credited his renewal of his faith in Christ to our conversations and correspondence. But in order for me to do this I would have to be in full communion with the Church.  So, on Saturday, April 28, 2007, I received the sacrament of Confession.  The next day I was publicly received back into the Catholic Church at 11 am Mass at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Waco, Texas.  My wife, standing beside me, was accepted as a catechumen.  (A Baylor student, who I do not know, was present at the Mass and provides an account of it on her blog). 
Because I can in good conscience, as a Catholic, affirm the ETS doctrinal statement, I do not intend to resign as a member of ETS. However, because I am sensitive to the fact that my status as ETS president changes the dynamic of my return to the Church, I had originally thought that it was wise for me not to step down as ETS president before my term expires in November. For, I thought that my resignation would draw needless attention to ETS.  On the other hand, because I had no doubt that word of my return to the Church would disseminate quickly through private conversation and correspondence over the next six months, I suggested to the ETS executive committee that it appoint someone else on the committee to preside over the remaining meetings in both August and November.  I offered to attend those meetings and contribute to them in ways to advance the good of ETS.  But I also told the committee that if it did not think it was appropriate for me to attend, I would not. On the other hand, if it thought I should conduct the meetings, I would do so. Regardless, I deferred to their collective judgment on this matter. However, I also told them that I intended to remain as ETS president until my term expires in November, but not to accept a nomination for a four-year at-large appointment to the executive committee after the end of my term.  
But, as many of you now realize, word of my reception into the Church was delivered, without my knowledge, to several bloggers.  A tiny percentage of these bloggers have engaged in much speculation about my motives, the timing of my move, as well as my status as ETS president. Unfortunately, some of these speculations had pockets of uncharity, for they were not advanced under the assumption that I have a true love for my Evangelical brothers and that I may have had undisclosed reasons, perhaps personal and theologically delicate ones, that time and circumstance prevented me from fully conveying in one full swoop.  Fortunately, the uncharitable aspects of these postings have had no impact on people of good will and devout faith, both Protestant and Catholic, who have offered their prayers, advice, and even critical comments to me in the form of private messages adorned by a love of Christ and a sincere desire to honor and respect both me and my wife. Many of these messages, especially the critical ones, have been extremely important in helping me to reassess my decision to remain as ETS president.  As I have already stated, my decision was based on a cluster of goods that I thought would be best protected by my completing my tenure and then permanently moving off the executive committee. However, given the immense public attention and commentary that my reception into the Church has provoked, I no longer think that it is possible for ETS to conduct its business and its meetings in a fashion that advances the Gospel of Christ as long as I remain as its president.  I now believe that my continued presence as president of ETS will serve the very harms that I had originally thought that my retention would avoid.  For this reason, effective May 5, 2007, I resign as both President of the Evangelical Theological Society and a member of its executive committee. 
In order to dispel any other rumors, I want to make it clear that no one on the ETS executive committee asked for me to resign.  They received my letter concerning this matter during the week of April 30, and I have no doubt that they have since then discussed that epistle among themselves. As stewards of this important academic society, these men not only have the right to do this, they have the obligation. And I would have willingly and graciously resigned if they had asked me to, even if I thought that I could serve out my term with little controversy. But knowing these wonderful gentlemen, and the measured and serious way they take their responsibility, I knew they did not want to be rushed into assessing such a delicate matter. I have no doubt they have been thinking, deliberating, and praying about what to do.  But given the fact that it is unlikely that I would have been elevated to the presidency of ETS by its membership if my reception into the Catholic Church had occurred prior to the time of my candidacy, I think it would have been more than reasonable for these gentlemen to ask me to step down.  But they had not done so yet.  Nevertheless, I am stepping down, in order to relieve them of the burden of that judgment as well as to avoid bringing scandal to either ETS or the Church.  
There is a conversation in ETS that must take place, a conversation about the relationship between Evangelicalism and what is called the “Great Tradition,” a tradition from which all Christians can trace their spiritual and ecclesiastical paternity.  It is a conversation that I welcome, and it is one in which I hope to be a participant. But my presence as ETS president, I have concluded, diminishes the chances of this conversation occurring.  It would merely exacerbate the disunity among Christians that needs to be remedied.  
The past four months have moved quickly for me and my wife. As you probably know, my work in philosophy, ethics, and theology has always been Catholic friendly, but I would have never predicted that I would return to the Church, for there seemed to me too many theological and ecclesiastical issues that appeared insurmountable. However, in January, at the suggestion of a dear friend, I began reading the Early Church Fathers as well as some of the more sophisticated works on justification by Catholic authors.  I became convinced that the Early Church is more Catholic than Protestant and that the Catholic view of justification, correctly understood, is biblically and historically defensible. Even though I also believe that the Reformed view is biblically and historically defensible, I think the Catholic view has more explanatory power to account for both all the biblical texts on justification as well as the church’s historical understanding of salvation prior to the Reformation all the way back to the ancient church of the first few centuries. Moreover, much of what I have taken for granted as a Protestant—e.g., the catholic creeds, the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation, the Christian understanding of man, and the canon of Scripture—is the result of a Church that made judgments about these matters and on which non-Catholics, including Evangelicals, have declared and grounded their Christian orthodoxy in a world hostile to it.  Given these considerations, I thought it wise for me to err on the side of the Church with historical and theological continuity with the first generations of Christians that followed Christ’s Apostles. 
I have tremendous respect for both what ETS stands for as well as for each and every one of the members of the ETS executive committee. If not for them, their predecessors, and so many of their (and our) mentors and teachers in the Protestant Evangelical movement, my present faith would be diminished. ETS’s tenacious defense and practice of Christian orthodoxy is what has sustained and nourished so many of us who have found our way back to the Church of our youth.
I eventually resigned my ETS membership as well (7 May 2007).

In these three short years I have learned so much more about Catholicism, and continue to grow in my faith.  On the other hand, my relationships with my Protestant friends have not waned. If anything, they have grown stronger.  


Mo said...

All heaven did break unparalleled joy and happiness! Can you imagine all the prayers, sacrifices, Mass intentions, offering up of sufferings etc. through the years by those whom you knew and perhaps some you did not know both in heaven and on earth that allowed the grace to work in your life such that it that brought you to that confessional on that particular Saturday? You'll spend eternity thanking our Lord for his mercy, much like I will for my own conversion. Like our Lord says, there is more happiness in heaven for a wayward sheep that returns home...

Mo said...

Hmm, talk about run-on sentences--must use the preview function more regularly...

Tiber Jumper said...

Happy Anniversary. April 30th 2004 was our reception back to the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.
Keeps getting better

Tiber Jumper said...

"On the other hand, my relationships with my Protestant friends have not waned. If anything, they have grown stronger."

I have not found that, but sadly lost a lot of friends. What did I do wrong? Any thoughts?

John Thayer Jensen said...

@Tiber Jumper:

"On the other hand, my relationships with my Protestant friends have not waned. If anything, they have grown stronger."

'I have not found that, but sadly lost a lot of friends. What did I do wrong? Any thoughts?'

My own experience was that early on all were very upset. A few talked to me. Of them, several have since become Catholics.

But the most frustrating thing is that most of our Protestant friends are cordial and courteous with us - and unless I press them on the subject, which I am unwilling to do, they absolutely don't want to talk about it.


Tiber Jumper said...

Yes John, I suppose that's true. Perhaps my blogging and over-enthusiastic response to returning to the Church freaked them out.

Tiber Jumper said...

Dr. Beckwith:
I remember fondly and somewhat painfully those days three years ago hearing about your return. I had come into the Church a few years before and was being told converts/reverts are un-intelligent, non-thinking people who just follow their emotions. I was blogging and debating a lot of protestants about Catholicism.
Then in the midst of this, a Calvinist convert blogger broke your story and I was really encouraged that the Pres of ETS became Catholic. Also very sad about the responses to it. I blogged about it here:
We all prayed for you and your wife as you made the jump across the Tiber!
And it will no doubt lead others home as well.

God bless
russ rentler